08/16/2010 05:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reflections on President Obama's Remarks Supporting the Islamic Cultural Center in Lower Manhattan

As an eighth-generation rabbi whose father came to this country in 1938 to escape religious persecution, and as president of a major American Jewish organization, Clal: The National Jewish Center of Learning and Leadership, I applaud and am inspired by President Obama's remarks on Friday night in support of the Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan. The President's comments, at the White House iftar dinner, marking the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, were wise and timely. The President invited all Americans to seriously reflect on the controversy surrounding the building of the Islamic cultural center and on the increasing divisions surrounding the building of other mosques around this country, and he did so precisely as a president ought to, by contextualizing it in the very meaning and calling of America.

With clarity, sobriety, and eloquence that should give every American reason to rise above the heated conflicts erupting around our country and to be proud of what our country genuinely stands for, the President asked us to do something difficult, noble and right: hold in our minds and hearts multiple truths. First, that we ought never to forget those who lost their lives on 9/11. Second, that we must always honor those who courageously sacrificed their lives trying to save their fellow citizens. Third, that we need to be ever-sensitive and empathetic to those who suffered traumatic loss of loved ones, a brokenness that can never be fully healed. But we also need to hold these truths together with one more truth: a profound understanding of what ultimately makes Ground Zero hallowed ground, and of what gives the lives of those who perished some redemptive meaning, however inadequate such meaning may be to those who every day mourn their loved ones.

Americans from across this country as well as visitors from all over the world come to Ground Zero not simply because people were murdered there. Rather, they come to stand in silence as sacred witnesses to the enduring truth that the terrorists hoped to undermine: that the unprecedented range of freedoms enshrined in our Constitution, to which we are collectively committed and always reaching to realize more deeply, and among which the freedom of religion is perhaps the most important, is what makes America a unique experiment in human history. It is precisely these freedoms that were attacked on 9/11, and Ground Zero is sacred soil because it is for these freedoms that 3,000 people of diverse religious, and ethnic identities, including Muslims, died, and for which American men and women are fighting. The President poignantly reminded us that freedom of religion is not a tactic or a strategy but a first principle that defines our country.

But in addition to defending our Constitution -- the promise the president makes in taking the oath of office -- and clearly articulating what we are fighting for, President Obama offered an important and powerful clarification that every American needs to take to heart regarding against whom we are fighting. Al-Qaeda is not Islam; it is a network of terrorists using a distorted form of Islam. To suspect every Muslim, especially fellow citizens who are Muslims, as somehow connected to this violent form of Islam is itself a terrible distortion and an undermining of the basic core of America. To say that Muslims who have worshiped within 12 blocks of Ground Zero for 27 years cannot move within the same neighborhood because it is too close to Ground Zero is to say the Muslims who died at the World Trade Center were not the same as the rest of the victims that awful day.

We will only win the war against terrorism if we win both in the mountains of Afghanistan and on the battlefield of ideas. Surely, if Osama Bin Laden cared, he would not want the Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan to be built, because people fear Muslims and he wants American Muslims to feel that they have no place in America. President Obama made clear to the world that American Muslims are "part of an unbroken line of Americans that stretches back to our founding." Fear for our security, however justifiable, ought not cloud our judgment or cause us to compromise the very values for which we are fighting. Implied in the president's weighty and perfectly nuanced remarks was that the wisdom to discern who is and who is not our enemy not only insures that we not become our own worst enemy but also that we remain "one nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all," the very source of our strength to carry the fight.

Thank you, Mr. President. You made me proud as an American, a Jew, a New Yorker, and a religious person.